Billy Donovan thought this would be a tough season for the Bulls. Can he fix it?

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Bulls coach Billy Donovan shouts Friday during the first half against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco.

    Bulls coach Billy Donovan shouts Friday during the first half against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 12/6/2022 5:54 PM

After the Bulls lost in Sacramento on Sunday, coach Billy Donovan talked about how he knew this season was going to be tough, and had spoken to the team about it.

First of all, he's right. This has been a rough ride for the Bulls so far.

 

But why would he expect a struggle after the team ended its rebuild and made the playoffs for the first time since 2017? Was it because he knew point guard Lonzo Ball would miss the early part of the season?

"I thought it was way more than that," Donovan said Tuesday at the Advocate Center. "I just thought with the level of where the East was going, Lonzo being out and the fact that ... we struggled against some of those better teams."

Donovan was looking at the step up in competition. Among teams that finished behind the Bulls last season, Cleveland added Donovan Mitchell, Atlanta traded for Dejounte Murray, New York signed Jalen Brunson, Brooklyn might be more whole this time. Then there figured to be no drop-off by the teams at the top like Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia.

"We've played the better teams better than we did a year ago," Donovan said. "But there were a lot of variables I thought were going to be really, really challenging for us.

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"I think I said that at the exit interview to end the season and said it to start the season. It's just, 'How are we going to handle the adversity piece to pull ourselves out of it.'"

The Bulls have beaten the 20-5 Celtics twice, and are 1-0 against the Bucks, Heat, Nets and Pacers. So why are they five games below .500 and sliding out of playoff contention already?

Mostly, it's the lack of consistent effort. Many of their losses have included a slow start, early double-digit deficit, then futile comeback.

"I don't know if I have an answer to why we start slow on that (defensive) end," Alex Caruso said. "I think it's more so just about not trying to feel the game out; more so setting the pace and the tempo rather than feeling it out and seeing what the game brings to us."

Ball's return from knee surgery might happen, but it's not imminent. For now, the only remedy is playing better and bringing a more consistent effort.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We just can't have things externally kick us into gear and motivate us, (like) 'Oh gosh, we're down,'" Donovan said. "We've got to establish that kind of standard or style or identity much early. It's just hard to live like that."

Caruso's hope is the sense of urgency that comes with falling behind by 18 points in the second quarter, can hit the Bulls when they look at the standings and realize they rank 12th out of 15 teams in the East.

"We're not waiting 30 games from now and be like, 'OK, now we've figured it out,'" Caruso said. "We've got to give ourselves a chance now and a lot of that is looking in the mirror and improving on the things we know we can do better."

Donovan altered the starting lineup last Friday against Golden State, using Caruso and Javonte Green instead of Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu.

Green missed the Sacramento game with knee soreness and is listed as doubtful for Wednesday's return to the United Center against Washington. Donovan said Green had an MRI, which showed nothing more than a bruise.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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